Commentary

Shaffer: 89-year-old woman survives freezing night

jshaffer@newsobserver.comFebruary 9, 2014 

Tempie Lou Johnson, 89, survived a night in Chatham County when temperatures fell to 17 degrees Fahrenheit.

COURTESY OF JILL DIXON

— From her hospital bed, Tempie Lou Johnson took my hand and declared it a wonder to be alive – a puzzling miracle but supernatural all the same.

At age 89, she slipped on her back steps and spent a night in the subfreezing cold, watching the sun set and rise over her snow-covered farm.

By the time the church-going grandmother was found, her core temperature had dipped to 72 degrees. Just for reference, people normally start hallucinating at 90 degrees, sink into a coma at 82 and die at 79.

Johnson spent those 24 hours shifting her hands from her armpits to her ankles, wondering what God had in mind.

“I guess I’ve got another chapter,” she explained.

Then she told me to get myself to church.

Her ordeal began a week ago Thursday, when snow still covered the ground at her Chatham County farm. Out of habit, Johnson put a light jacket over her sweater and drove to the mailbox to fetch the newspaper.

“When you get as old as I am,” she said, “you kind of like to read the obituaries.”

That was about 2 p.m.

When she got back to the house, her leg gave way heading up the back stairs. She landed in a sitting position one step from the top, unable to rise to her feet.

And there she stayed – nothing but a pair of knee-high stockings on her legs.

“I thought for sure somebody would pass along,” said Johnson, a widow. “My children were there on the farm, but they couldn’t hear me because the chicken feeders were running.”

There is no barometer for survival, no guessing when the heavens will choose to throw down a rope.

I once wrote about a man, who used a wheelchair, whose car gave out while crossing deep water in the middle of Hurricane Floyd. The flood rose even with the car’s windows, bringing death within arm’s reach, and then a local farmer appeared on a tractor to pull the man out. As I recall, they spent the night praying.

But I also wrote about four firemen whose fishing boat flipped off of Ocean Isle Beach. They floated for 10 hours in 58-degree water – less than half the time Johnson spent on her porch – before succumbing to hypothermia. I don’t know, but I’m guessing those men prayed, too.

While Johnson waited and the temperature fell to 17 degrees, she listened to the birds bedding down in a bush. She heard them again at dawn. She thought about all the time she had spent in church and what an important role it had played in her life, and she asked, “Lord, is this really the way you want me to go?”

Then she fell asleep.

Johnson might have died on that step but for her hair appointment, a Friday ritual. When she didn’t arrive that afternoon, her hairdresser called her son-in-law, who came to find her and then called paramedics.

“She was more worried about the ambulance people cutting her coat,” said Johnson’s , granddaughter, Jill Dixon. “She’s just funny.”

I met Johnson at UNC Hospitals Thursday, a week removed from near-freezing, where she is recovering just fine. She wondered what she’s supposed to do with this extra time, and she figured God had a reason for sparing her. So while we sat there in the hospital, she told me the Bible story about Paul on the road to Damascus, and she left me with the phrase, “Why persecutest thou me?”

I don’t know what constitutes a miracle. Here at the newspaper, we’re discouraged from using the word. Like “hero,” it’s an overused term – not to mention being hazy and unclear. But something special happened that night. The cold backed off. Johnson’s heart warmed to fight it. Or something, somewhere decided she had more steps to take.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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